Abstract Expressionism – an introduction of sorts

I recently saw the film, Pollock, which depicted a chunk of the famous American artist’s life: his path from obscurity to fame, his eventual decline and inevitable, sudden death. It included Pollock’s romantic life, his struggles with alcoholism, the people of influence who helped to ‘make’ him, his devoted wife, but most significantly, it attempted to depict his approach to painting, his mindset.

The line of the movie that stood out the most for me was,

“The surrealists confuse literature with painting.”

This statement resonated with me as I have always had a deep attraction to surrealist art and an obsession with words and the powerful emotion they can arouse through literature. The movie, however, was no praise-song for the surrealist movement, nor literary prowess, but rather the journey of a distinct departure from that type of expression. It introduced me, albeit backhandedly, to the world of Abstract Expressionism – a title heretofore unkown to me, in spite of my previous encounters with the iconic images that defined the movement.

Jackson Pollock was perhaps one of the first artists to disturb my layman’s sensibilities about the true meaning of art. Taught to expect and accept only the aesthetically pleasing, and to revere the truest depiction of nature, I had been somewhat awakened to the ‘more-ness’ of art in a required undergraduate course. I was gradually introduced to the “old masters” from impressionism to cubism.  ‘African Art’, the deceptively tight label that encompassed a massive temporal and physical arena, had been as quotidian as my breathing, as it could be found scattered throughout my home, casually and sometimes reverently. It soon grew in my estimation as I began to understand the layers of meaning in the distorted representations of human features. I remained fascinated by the careful attention to aesthetic detail for simply functional objects. I devoured Okri and Achebe and felt the enchantment in the masks on the wall. Yes, art and literature went hand in glove for me.

In spite of my huge strides in artistic education and appreciation, a massive canvas splattered with multicolored paint remained a slap in the face for me. Couldn’t an infant with enough paint and energy do this? How could someone get away with this? What is art anyway? Who decides, for god’s sake? I was indignant and clung to the powerful steed of my skepticism riding into a sunset of ignorance and certainty, turning my back on the disconcerting world of “abstract art”.

More than a decade later, I could not resist the movie, an explanation mayhap for work that seemed far less difficult to appreciate, but still foreign to my understanding.

“Paint is paint. Surface is surface” the movie Pollock repeated.  Again and again he said, “Paint is paint. Surface is surface.”

Critics called it “action painting”. It was purported to capture the subconscious of the artist. It was a stripping away of the unnecessary. The artist revolutionarily claimed that the painting was about just that – painting. It was not about the image, not about an image or any specific idea, but truly about the act of painting. I felt something stir inside of me as if I were uncovering genius.

Before my eyes, this artist had taken art to another level for me. He asked why can’t you just look at it and enjoy it? Why can’t that be enough? Why must there be another meaning? After all, I did truly enjoy the paintings. I did like looking at them. From a distance and up close they had me entranced. The scale, the beauty in the drippings, the colours, they were all marvelous.

I felt momentarily liberated just being able to observe and enjoy and witness the paint simply as paint and the surface, simply as a surface. No illusions, no pretensions.

It reminded me of an instructor telling me in my recent stint in art school, “can’t you just enjoy the process. Stop worrying about making everything perfect”. At the time I had felt betrayed. Didn’t I, after all, come here to perfect my technique? Now I am being told to “forget technique” and “just produce”.

“What,” I thought to myself,

“what should I produce? Rubbish?”

“And surely,” I reasoned, “solid technique is still rewarded and applauded.”

I recently met a student who made use of film as simply a surface to quite interesting results. An artist who currently fascinates me, plays continuously with the idea of exposing a photographic surface. Perhaps they, along with my frustrating instructor, geared me up to step away a little from my long adored Dali and Frida, and enjoy a little Pollock.

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